Empty Beach

The Modern's Diebenkorn exhibit makes it OK to hate abstract art

I couldn't see the bathtub in Richard Diebenkorn's giant abstract painting. Didn't even try. But two women who had broken off from our guided tour at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth did. Or so they said. In fact, that bathtub got 'em pretty excited. "And see, Susan. Right above it--I think that's a towel bar!"

So this is what it's come to. Abstract painting, the highest of high art, as a Where's Waldo? game? Who can blame people for trying, when this Diebenkorn retrospective--unfocused, overwhelming, and surprisingly dull--cries out for some form of self-entertainment, just to make the museum trek worthwhile?

San Francisco-based painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) has racked up enough critical acclaim over the last few decades to be saddled with that spiky and dubious label, "influential." So I can't fault the Modern for its proud display of his work or question the need for the countless tour guides kept busy by the sizable crowds. Diebenkorn launched his career in the early 1950s, about the same time Abstract Expressionism was gaining solid ground 3,000 miles away in New York. But Diebenkorn's abstractions can hardly be considered part of the same movement: Whereas Pollock and Motherwell and de Kooning painted to communicate emotion, obsession, and raw energy through non-referential images, Diebenkorn, a quiet and studied man, concerned himself with chromatic schemes and spatial relations, reduction and architectural distillation. You know, meditative stuff. Easy on the eye, easy on the psyche.

Actually, Diebenkorn's romance with abstract painting was somewhat fickle. His first noted body of work, the Albuquerque series, is purely abstracted, the impact spilling off only through vibrant color, as Diebenkorn focused on what most artists do while in New Mexico--playing with its odd and ethereal Southwestern light. When he returned to settle in California, he continued to develop this style in his Berkeley series; this work shows a hybrid of Matisse's blockiness, Mondrian's reductive analysis, and Diebenkorn's own observations about the essence of the Bay's ocean-tied terrain. You know, meditative stuff.

Later, in the '50s, he suddenly renounced the abstract and went representational--an act less about compulsive resentment (read: Philip Guston) than about his belief that he had taxed abstract painting past its potential. Plus, Diebenkorn hated trendies and bandwagons, and with Abstract Expressionism at the time taking over the whole art world, he was ready to bolt. So representational he went (though still semi-reduced); his still lifes of fruit and kitchenware, his nude women, and his beachy landscapes still referenced Matisse, with a chunky, muscular heft in color and grayscale. Up until 1967, these canvases reflected his thoughtful, dense manner of capturing quiet slices in time.

Most of these painted "moments" were peaceful, though his mid-'60s Cityscapes--a handful of paintings of residential streets in his neighborhood--have an insidious, creepy calm about them. Devoid of people or the noise they make--the atmosphere a gray, flat weight--these paintings evoke Hopper's alienating urban scenes, or Sheeler's uninhabited, clinical industrial landscapes, or even Fischl's nightmare suburbias, where unspoken threats groan and swell behind closed doors. Given the questions they provoke, these are Diebenkorn's most compelling works. Yet his Ocean Park series--his return to abstraction that kicked in a few years later and lasted more than two decades--was the work that won him the highest praise of his career.

It's these Ocean Park paintings--giant, complacent, and ever-approachable in their pastel silence--that grabbed my attention at the Modern. For years, critics have called them "landscape" paintings, although Diebenkorn hated the label, insisting they were pure distillations of Ocean Park's mood, not its physical properties. He would probably argue that the flatly pleasant planes evoke the colors of the shoreline: the beige is sand, the blue is water, the green is trees, and so on. But it's the placement of these colors, the hard angles, the ungrounded shapes, the odd balance, and the total lack of any recognizable layout that makes the "landscape" label difficult for me to buy.

Judging from the reaction of the crowds at the Modern who were milling about in the rooms covered in Ocean Park canvases, most seemed to be suffering from a similar affliction. They were cocking their heads, squinting their eyes, murmuring in hushed consultation with one another, hoping to spontaneously hit upon the series' meaning. Futilely, they strained to hear the monologues of prattling tour guides; they know they should like this stuff. They know it's all very important. They should get it, and if they don't, then they're condemned to Cultural Purgatory forever.

Perhaps that's why those two women were so excited when they claimed they had found "the bathtub."

But let's step back and keep it simple. Up until the 20th century, Western art had been resolutely representational (the apple as apple). The Impressionists and then the Cubists were the first Western artists to challenge the traditions (the light coming off the apple), but the Abstract Expressionists were the first to delete all reference to the real world (the apple as angst). The crucial and blanketing influence of abstract painting can't be overstated; most art and design--commercial and non, lowbrow and high--have shifted under the power the abstract painters tapped in the process of transforming ideas into amorphous but undeniably meaningful forms.

So where does Diebenkorn's stuff fit into this big picture? He lacks the visceral hooks of his contemporaries--the frenetic anxiety of Pollock, the gloomy depth of Rothko, the violence in de Kooning and Motherwell--the very thing that makes the opaqueness of an abstract painting give way to a sense of substance. Frankly, because Diebenkorn's later abstracts, although highly personal, were all about his intellectualizing life matter, reducing its vibrancy for his own clinical report, their resonance just doesn't, well, resonate.

These days, we hang glorified wallpaper thanks to the pioneering work of abstract painters. Yet Diebenkorn's paintings come off like the glorified wallpaper it spawned. Its pleasantness isn't what makes it dull. Its lack of universality makes it dull. So if you go see the Diebenkorn exhibit, don't worry about seeing what he did.

Forget the bathtub. Trust me, it ain't there.

And another thing...
On Saturday, March 14, the Angstrom Gallery held an opening party for a show of collaborative works by Daniel Johnston and Ron English. The space filled with culture hounds eager to meet the Austin artist-musician Johnston, an icon in the indie-rock and lowbrow-art spheres. New York pop-artist English has taken 30 of Johnston's sketchy gestural drawings and made an interpretive painting of each in his surrealist style. After the opening, the crowd moved to Bar of Soap to watch Johnston perform a rare set of his disjointed, engaging tunes. The party was a one-night event; the show will re-open April 3 and run through April 25. For info, call (214) 823-6456.

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